Mr. Smith Meet Mr. Moore

The Evolution Of The American Political Film

Patriot Acts

American politics on film: A story of hope vs. cynicism

Cover Story

July 25, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

On movie screens in 1939, a rube from a backwater burg took on Washington politicos, counting on the fundamental decency of the American people and their leaders to carry the day. Sixty-five years later, a bespectacled schlub from Flint, Mich., created a documentary in which he took on Washington politicos, and fundamental decency had a very small role.

At first blush, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Fahrenheit 9 / 11 seem worlds apart. Mr. Smith, in which James Stewart plays a mild-mannered boys' club leader-turned U.S. senator, offers an idealized view of the American political system. In sharp contrast, Fahrenheit, the latest liberal screed from documentarian Michael Moore, offers a scathing attack on a sitting U.S. president.

Despite their differences, both movies offer testimony to Hollywood's obsession with politics, one that goes back to the roots of cinema: In 1915, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation blamed freed slaves and white carpetbaggers from the North for the mess that was politics in the post-Civil War South. This week, perhaps timed to tomorrow's opening of the Democratic National Convention in Boston, further evidence of that fascination arrives with a remake of The Manchurian Candidate, a 1962 thriller in which Laurence Harvey was cast as a brainwashed ex-POW programmed to undercut the American political process in the most heinous way.

Such movies provide windows on the vast changes that have sculpted the political landscape over the years; if Frank Capra's Depression-era civics lesson is innately optimistic, then Michael Moore's wartime anti-Bush administration harangue seems afflicted by a whopping dose of cynicism. But in ways that may not be immediately apparent, the two films share similarities; each is a snapshot of a political system that works only if the citizenry pays attention and, perhaps more importantly, is given the opportunity to pay attention. Capra and Moore may seem unlikely bedfellows, but a careful look at how Hollywood has treated the great game of American politics over the years suggests a common thread.

True, audiences who routinely cheer the ultimate triumph of Mr. Smith may have no room for the cynicism or obvious bias of Fahrenheit. But both films suggest strongly that America's leaders would serve the electorate best by being honest -- a recurring theme in works such as The Best Man, Being There, Bulworth, Advise and Consent. It even pops up in comedies like the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Dave, a gentle 1993 satire in which Kevin Kline plays a presidential lookalike who makes a better chief executive than the man he's hired to impersonate.

All political films share the common goal of peering "behind the veneer of the American process," says Murray Horwitz, director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring. Over the years, what they find has seemed to change. "I think that political films in general have gone from a sunnier sort-of apprehension of the democratic process to a much more jaded -- I hesitate to say cynical, but certainly more skeptical and hard-boiled -- appreciation of what the process entails."

Faith in the people

The modern American political film began -- and, some would argue, reached its peak -- with Capra's Mr. Smith. Stewart, just beginning his career as Hollywood's favorite everyman, is Jefferson Smith, a political neophyte chosen by party bosses to finish the term of a deceased U.S. senator. An unknown, Smith is chosen not because he shares their ideology (he hasn't got one). Rather, the bosses figure he'll do whatever he's told. But Smith, whose belief in the American system comes directly from an elementary school textbook, rebels against the corruption everyone else takes for granted. After a bravura filibuster on the Senate floor, he manages to hold true to his ideals while giving his fellow senators a lesson in patriotism.

Mr. Smith set the template many political films followed, expressing a belief in the electorate but casting a skeptical eye at the elected. "We have the myth that the people are wise and good, but somehow the political choices they make are bad and corrupt," says Stuart Klawans, film critic for The Nation. "That seems to be the prevailing philosophy in political films."

Throughout the '30s and early '40s, many movies reflected a basic trust in government, a New Deal-era belief that our elected officials really were looking out for the little guy. In John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), one of the few friendly faces the Joad family meets during their desperate migration to California is a representative of the U.S. government who offers them the first real shelter they've had since leaving Oklahoma. It may have been no accident that the actor who played him, Grant Mitchell, looks vaguely like Franklin Roosevelt.

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